Sunday, April 28, 2013

ISP: The Month of Frenzy

My lack of updates have been due to the mayhem of ISP. All SIT programs conclude with an independent study project--essentially every student designs their own research project to reflect their academic interests and then carries it out. I went through a few potential ISP subjects before I found the perfect fit, and I landed on researching the role of the young writer in an emerging Pacific literature with a focus on encouraging creative expression.

Basically what that all means is that I'm planning on teaching creative writing workshops in a few local universities and exposing students to creative outlets that they might be normally be discouraged from pursuing, as in a communal society, individual expression is oftentimes viewed as selfish or arrogant. Whereas most American students have experienced some degree of creative writing somewhere in their curriculum, it's something that most young Samoans have never been exposed to. I'm excited to do the workshops, but I haven't yet been able to get contact of any of the professors I'd hoped to--emails and phone numbers don't have the same consistent success rates here that they do in America. So my plan for the day is to go camp outside of their offices and beg them to let me into their classrooms, and then talk to some publishers and similarly beg the youth librarian in Apia to let me run a voluntary workshop with students there. Let's hope most of the people I need to beg speak English!

Also my advisor, Marj Moore, is an editor for the Samoa Observer, meaning that she was able to land me some great interviews, and also meaning that she forced me to agree to be in the paper. Check it out, Samoa celeb status.

Everyone keep your fingers firmly crossed for me, hopefully I can make some big moves today!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Lotofaga Life

This post has been a long time coming. I could blame it all on inconsistent internet, and I guess you'd all have no choice but to believe me since the majority of you have no real frame of reference for Pacific internet going-ons. But having been raised with a healthy dose of Catholic guilt, I feel dutifully obliged to report to you the full scope of the truth. For one thing, the internet really is fickle (and wildly frustrating), and there are so many powerful distractions here that make it difficult to focus on doing things like blog posts. But more importantly, I've avoided this post for a while just because the full scope of the situation was so deep and impacted me on such a significant level that I've been a bit hesitant to take on the enormous task of attempting to articulate and share the experience. Ultimately I've decided that it's too important to not share, so I'm facing my procrastination head-on and I'll do my best to give you all a taste of Lotofaga life. (Editorial note--if a picture is placed at random, my sincerest apologies. The fact that a picture loads at all is always a blessing and I will never run the risk of infuriating the Pacific internet gods by trying to move it.)

So, a blast to the past to begin with. We went to Lotofaga, a village on the south-east corner of Upolu, Samoa's most-populated island, from February 23rd to March 3rd. All of the 12 members of our group were posted with various families through the Congregational Church, and all of the families were of different sizes and dynamics as well as coming from various means, making all of our experiences unique. 
My family was different in that  I had two sisters attending high school in the city, a sister living in New Zealand and an older brother and sister living elsewhere in the village, but it was only my mother, father, and older brother in the household. Samoan households tend to be overflowing with people, so with only three people I had a much different perspective on village life. It was also the first time that they'd had a palagi (white person) staying with them without having the two younger daughters at home to entertain the student, meaning at times they didn't know what to do with me. I did struggle with some feelings of being a chore or a burden to the family, especially since I love children and definitely felt their absence in the house, but by the end of the week I felt like we had really formed meaningful and lasting connections. 

Toe'e was my 56-year-old mother, she was involved in church activities and was once the village's midwife. Being the older woman of the household, she was mostly doted on and the men did the majority of the work, and Toe'e spent much of her free-time hanging out with her friends on the church women's committee. Pati was my father and he shared responsibilities for maintaining the plantation, caring for the horses and pigs and cooking with my brother. He spoke about as much English as I spoke Samoan (meaning the absolute bare minimum), but he has such an incredibly pure and kind soul, we communicated entirely through smiles and laughs and I felt completely at ease around him. 
My brother Ene was a man of many talents, but photography was not one of them.
My 36-year-old brother Ene didn't say anything to me my first night, so I assumed that he spoke no English. Then the next afternoon, he turned to me and asked, "Sami, do you like Taco Bell?" Clearly this was an indication that we were about to form a very deep friendship. It turns out that he had lived in America for 5 years, having attended high school and some college there, only returning because of a serious football-related injury to his eye. He had always intended on returning to America, but realized that he would have to stay in Samoa to maintain the family's plantation and take care of his parents, as in Samoa 'aiga (family) comes before everything else. His insight into the differences in values and lifestyle between Samoa and America were amazing, and his dedication to his family, despite the way that it so severely limited his own path in life, was inspiring. We became extremely close over the course of the week, and he even ended up opening up to me about things that he said his own family had never heard from him. I feel so incredibly lucky to have met him and to have been witness to his near-constant and surprisingly high-pitched laugh.

Ene ma Sami

Ene posting up with the pups. The posed-sunglasses-inside-look was entirely his idea.
While I spent a lot of time with my family, we also went to the house of our program director, Jackie, every day for lessons. Her Lotofaga house was surrounded by all of her extended family's houses, which is pretty typical for Samoan living situations. This meant that we were able to interact with her family a lot, and they taught us how to weave fine mats, dance traditional Samoan siva for the fiafia (celebration) at the end of the week, and how to cook a traditional Samoan to'ona'i, the big meal eaten after church on Sunday.

One of the many children at Jackie's house. On a scale of 1 to how much does this munchkin look like Mowgli from The Jungle Book? She came running up screaming whenever she saw me so she could cuddle in my lap. Although once her mom overheard me telling her that I was going to smuggle her back to America with me and then every time I picked her up afterwards, her mom was keen on taking her right back... whoops.

Emi weaving fine mats. They're used as a sort of inter-family currency here, especially for weddings, and they take an incredible amount of time and patience to make.

The to'ona'i meal is almost exclusively cooked in an umu, a separate fale that's built behind the house and used exclusively for this purpose. It basically turns into a smoke hut (think less smoky jazz club and more intolerable hell-fire) once they make the fire inside. Your eyes burn and your lungs collapse and you basically feel like you've got yourself a moderate case of TB, and traditionally the cooks will spend HOURS at a time in there. On the brighter side, we learned how to husk, shred and strain coconut to make palusami (coconut cream wrapped in banana and taro leaves-- delicious), peel green bananas and pumpkins, and pound octopus.
Pounding the octopus into delicious submission-- I suggest that this be offered as an alternative to anger management in the States.

We had eaten all of the foods in our respective families' to'ona'i's, so to see the extent of the work that went into our food and to actively participate in its preparation was awesome. We also watched a pig get slaughtered for the meal. I could have chosen not to watch, but I felt that it was important as someone who has eaten meat to see the entirety of what the animal has to go through in order for us to get that food. It was extremely emotional-- I had asked Jackie ahead of time if it would be culturally inappropriate to comfort the animal as it was being killed (2 girls took a stick, placed it over the pig's throat and then stood on either end of the stick until it suffocated) and she warned me that it would be. I tried to keep my distance out of respect to the culture under that warning but at a certain point, it got to be too much for me. I was overwhelmed with the animal's pain so I went to comfort the pig anyway, but when I pet its stomach I realized that it was already dead. I don't regret the experience, because I think it's important to be connected to the food that you eat, and being here has made me recognize exactly how disconnected I, as an American, am from my food, and it's something that I hope to adjust in my lifestyle when I get home. I'll also be going full vegetarian once I get home-- I wish I could do that here, but with a fish allergy already severely limiting my options, it's not feasible at the moment.

Also on the fish allergy note, a surprise for me was that allergies aren't recognized in Samoa. That made my experience of trying to explain my fish allergy pretty difficult. I learned early on how to tell my family that fish makes me sick, and as fish is one of the main parts of their diets, they found that nearly impossible to believe. But they respected it, regardless of how much it made me seem like a crazy palagi, and they didn't serve me fish, although it confused them to the extent that anytime they gave me a new food, they asked if I was allergic to it, too. I spent a lot of my time saying, "Leai, I'm not allergic to tea, thank you. Nope, not allergic to sugar either."
Traditional umu

The final product. Fish is on the bottom left, the orange dish is pumpkin and it's flanked by octopus in front and behind it, there are cucumbers and salad in the back, the green rounds are palusami and the big plate is taro and breadfruit cut up and baked-- the starchy foods that you dip the palusami in, and the pork is in the center.

Ladone, debatably the most adorable human being I've ever met.
 We also got the amazing opportunity to teach in Lotofaga's primary school. My roommate Amy and I taught Year 3, and it was the most fun I had the entire time I was in Lotofaga. We designed our lesson plan around English language learning through a lot of physical games, since they normally don't get that type of opportunity to have fun in the classroom, and the kids ate it up. Everyone was laughing the entire time, but we still left the classroom feeling like we'd actually taught them something.

As much fun as it was though, it was shocking--the walls were bare with peeling paint, there were no desks, no supplies, nothing around the room to stimulate the kids in any way-- they were learning with the absolute bare minimum. Since it's a communal society, most of it is rote learning too, meaning that there's no opportunity for kids to develop independent critical thought, a factor only emphasized by the lack of supplies. We're planning on returning to the village with as many supplies as we can gather, but I can't help feeling like it could never be enough to make any discernible difference. That's the most frustrating thing here--despite helping as much as we can, these things are much greater than our time and abilities can tackle. I just keep reminding myself that a small difference is better than no difference at all.
Amy's brother Lole with his "enthusiastic learner" game face on outside of school.

Amy and I with our Year 3 class and their teacher, Sipeli.

Samoa also happens to be wildly beautiful, and we visited beautiful waterfalls, jungles, and the To Sua ocean trenches, which were directly across the street from my family's home. I'd been dreaming of To Sua long before I planned on coming to Samoa, and actually visiting was surreal. Unfortunately those pictures won't load, but if you want a mind-bending experience, google them, they're gold.
The normal vista, manaia tele Samoa!

Note the rainbow in the middle of the waterfall. Real life?

Fale living

Peeking over the waterfall with So'i. We could feel the rocks we were lying on trembling with the force of the water, it was incredibly powerful. Actually retrospectively that was probably a pretty dangerous spot...

The crew sans our Samoan princess, Ronna.

Traipsing through a Samoan jungle in my usual graceful-garden-nymph form. Mom, I think this is mantle-place material.

The fact that the internet might fail at any moment makes transistions seem unnecessary, so just bear with me here. Since we all lived relatively close together and because everyone in the village knew one another (every passerby called to me by name by the second day), we visited one another's families pretty consistently. Amy lived in one of the bigger village houses only a few properties down from me, so I would stop by to play with her little sister, Valelia, and let her braid my hair. One of the last days in Lotofaga, I was walking by Amy's house on my way back from the faleoloa (store), and Amy's mother started calling for me to come in. As I went in, I was introduced to Amy's grandfather, Olo, who is a matai (high chief) and was handed a glass of Canadian whiskey (filed under things I hadn't expected to find in the middle of the Pacific Ocean). We spent the afternoon laughing and politely refusing Olo's persistent requests for all of us to marry his son, Junior, and as of now there are still some unfulfilled plans for Olo to meet up with us and go clubbing whenever he decides to journey to Apia.
My home was one of the most modest houses in Lotofaga. While it was palagi style (meaning simply that it had walls), there were only two rooms. You learn very quickly that the things you'd labelled as necessities your whole life really aren't necessary at all. My family lived simply, all sleeping in the same room as one another, and they were proud of that fact--they didn't need all of the materials that we cloud our lives with.
Fale sweet fale!
We didn't have a stove, refridgerator, television, shower, running water, or, wait for it... a toilet. We did have an outhouse of sorts, but not one that flushed. Brian eloquently deemed its Nepalese counterpart "the squatty potty," which summarizes it pretty well. Living simply was more refreshing than I would have imagined, but I would be lying if I said that the bathroom did not become my mortal enemy in the course of my 8 day stay.

 Also, something that you might not have guessed about Samoa-- most women in the villages have mild gambling addictions hidden under the guise of "Bingo to support the church." And what happens to all of those Bingo cards after they were used up? Yes, dear reader, they find their resting place in the faleuila, where they are reincarnated as Samoan toilet paper.
The dark presence of the faleuila could be felt across the property. Also note that faleuila directly translates to "thunder shed."

The half of the house designated for me and the privacy sheet that they bring out for us shy palagis.

The best part about my house was its virtual inundation with baby animals. There were baby piglets all over the backyard (shout out to Amanda Sanderson-- I tried to get baby piglet pictures for you, but you'd never guess precisely how strong the flight survival instinct is in piglets until you've spent upwards of half an hour chasing them through a rural village), a baby horse in the front yard, and a puppy who basically lived in the house.

The Samoan understanding of animals is much different than our Western views. My family tolerated the puppy's presence and occassionally fed it, but they did not play with it. They thought it was hilarious that I a. actively sought the puppy out b. asked if it had a name and c. would let it climb all over me, so they took to calling it "Sami's puppy." They would treat it roughly, grabbing him by one of his legs and throwing him if they felt he'd gone out of line, and if that was difficult to watch, then the way that they laughed at his pain and mocked his cries was almost unbearable. But it's important not to just demonize that situation--it made me think about how we as Americans treat animals. Is chaining our dogs, stealing their freedom and then overfeeding them until they get things like diabetes any less cruel? Reminding yourself of your culture's own failings doesn't exactly make watching a puppy get thrown across the room any easier, but at least it helped me to look critically at something I'd never questioned before.

The only picture I managed to capture with the puppy.

The main (read, only) road in Lotofaga.

Some more village pups

Leaving was incredibly difficult. I'd gone into the situation more anxious than anything else--how do you go into a family's house, without even a basic knowledge of their language, and find a way to communicate? It turns out language was just another one of those false necessities--you can form incredible bonds and share so much without saying a single thing. Lotofaga legitimately changed the way I look at life, and I don't want to risk cheapening that experience by clumsily fumbling with words over it right now. That's something that's going to take a lot of time and some distance to be able to understand fully. But I know that I'll be back to visit my family soon, and they'll always have a big place in my tatu.
My sweet Valelia, who never failed to braid my hair regardless of what state of unshowered chic I was in.

I need to end this here, considering we're leaving for Fiji at noon and I haven't thought about packing yet. But I've got more updates on Savai'i, American Samoa, working with the Special Olympics, and countless other amazing, life-changing things that happen everyday here. Please be patient with my posting and alofa all around!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Still Alive

Just a quick update to letcha all know that I'm still around and kicking. We just got back from a week in Savai'i, the bigger and western island of Samoa, where we spent our time in beach fales and hanging around on volcanoes. Tough life. The internet here has been frustrating, but I have a lot of pictures and stories from the village homestay in Lotofaga 2 weeks ago and Savai'i so I'll try to get some picture-laden posts up soon, especially since we have a mercifully free weekend coming up. Alofa all around!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Piula and Truck Bed Stargazing

Yesterday we went to a lecture at the Theological College, on the western side of Samoa. The lecture was about the pervasive influence of missionaries in Samoa, which would have been interesting enough, but we had it in a beach fale right beside the ocean. It was absurdly beautiful. And to top it off, Piula Cave is right on the Theological College's campus, a freshwater pool/cave that's directly opposite the ocean. I don't think I've ever been to such a beautiful place in my life. And I finally got to use my underwater camera! It died before we went into the ocean, where I saw WILD fish, but I'll be back there soon, undoubtedly.

Difficult to be artsy when you can see your purple goggles in the shot...

So many fish!

Goggle selfie...

This is me in front of the house I lived in for 3 hours... USP literally doesn't know how many students will come until the day they arrive, which is a good way to summarize the Pacific lifestyle. It meant that all of our SIT group was shuffled around a lot. I don't exactly know how to change the order of pictures, so I guess just enjoy?

The Theological College

You could also swim through an underwater hole in the cave to get to another cave. Trippy!

Sanaa the mermaid goddess
Last night, we were going out clubbing and a student here offered us a ride in the back of his pickup truck. The rides there and back were by far the best parts of the night. The club itself was a little sticky--you know how hot clubs/bars at home get? Multiply that by proximity to the equator and you get a Samoan sauna.

Stargazing. Or corpses in the back of the truck. Difficult to differentiate here.

Niko Suave

A sketchily acquired police coat

Oh and I guess more fish pictures?

The eel I stalked for 5 minutes. This is the closest to a glamour shot as I could manage.
We're off to village homestays in 20 minutes. We'll be there for a week, and I'm assuming no internet will be available. I'm a little nervous, but it should all go swimmingly. Fa soifua, talk to you all next Sunday!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Takili's First Hug

This post needs a bit of a preface. While we're in school in Samoa, it's actually mainly attended by non-Samoans. Its focus is agriculture, so there are agriculture students from Tonga, Fiji, Tuvalu, and the Solomon Islands, and a few other Pacific nations here. Everyone is so friendly and willing to hang out with us, but we've become especially close with a Cook Islander named Takili. He puts up with most of our general harassment, but he won't tolerate physical affection. In the Cook Islands any type of affection is taboo--he literally doesn't even hug his mom. For the past 2 weeks we've been telling Takili that we were going to be his first real hug, and he's been resisting. But today, he finally agreed. A momentous moment that I promised I wouldn't dedicate a blog post to or tell anyone about... whoops.

It looks friendly but he's actually physically pushing us away. This phase of the hug lasted for about 5 minutes.

He's a good sport. Also, fun fact, he draws tattoos for his friends, and he's in the process of drawing one for Nick, the only boy on our trip. It's already looking great. I take all of his doodles that he wants to throw out and paste them into my journal-- they're all so beautiful, and every one tells a story through its design. Also, his grandmother was a witch doctor and he has the wildest stories. The guy is endlessly fascinating and friendly, like every other person that I've met here so far. That sounds cliche, but it's true.

Another picture for good measure, some of the crew-- Kuini, Emi, So'i, Niko ma Lima.

The Fastest Typing in Town: Racing Against Inconsistent Internent

The internet here is as unpredictable as the weather, and I wish I could write a long and lovely post about this amazing country for everyone, but as of right now I'm not risking losing connection. For the time being, enjoy a few pictures! 
The digs

Found out the hard way that that mud is very similar to quicksand... the water is so inaccessible here, which is exaggerated by the fact that it's probably the hottest place in the world. But still pretty, right?

Best view on campus-- from the water room. If you squint and look to the left, that's the ocean and Apia.


The Chinese built a massive Olympic swimming/diving pavilion just outside of Apia here-- it's like a mirage in the desert here, so out of place among tin-roofed fales. Samoans can't even afford to go there, only the visiting New Zealanders and palagis (white people) can, so what kind of aid is that? The frustration that came from visiting the center made me choose to do my ISP on the implications of foreign aid in developing countries-- I want to study the strings that are attached to these "kind gestures."

But the water DID feel really nice.

Miki ma Maile.

View from our classroom... surreal.

View inside the classroom... similarly stunning.

I'm in the room on the left with the supermodel from 2 pictures above.

Sorry again for the lack of details, once I get better connection, I'll add more pictures and attempt to describe the surreality that has been our lives in the past 2 weeks. Alofa lava!